Thursday, December 25, 2008

365 Years of Isaac Newton

In a Letter to Roger Cotes, Cambridge mathematician who proofread second edition of the Principia, Newton is ambivalent about hypotheses:

'For anything which is not deduced from phenomena ought to be called a hypothesis, and hypotheses of this kind, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy, propositions are deduced from phenomena, and afterward made general by induction…'

In Newton’s scientific system, induction, or the movement upward from observed phenomenon to general law, is highest status a proposition can attain. Before a proposition can make sublimation to law, it must be supported by proof derived from experiment. But before proof can be applied to an idea, there must be formulated proposition of that idea. Seems contrary then that a hypothesis should not be formed previous to experimentation. Newton’s resistance to hypotheses suggests that they are involved in a personalization of experiment, which might compromise the supposed objectivity of experiment. Newton would like to suggest it possible to get at truths from a position that is supra-lingual; that, by observation and experiment, the experimental scientist might work their way inward from phenomena through nebulous proposition(s) to axiomatic truth. In an earlier letter to Roger Oldenburg, original fellow at the Royal Society, Newton is less guarded about his philosophy:

'…For the best and safest method of philosophizing seems to be, first, to inquire diligently into the properties of things and to establish those properties by experiments, and to proceed later to hypotheses for the explanation of things themselves. For hypotheses ought to be applied only in the explanation of the properties of things, and not made use of in determining them; except in so far as they may furnish experiments. And if anyone offers conjectures about the truth of things from the mere possibility of hypotheses, I do not see by what stipulation anything certain can be determined in any science; since one or another set of hypotheses may always be devised which will appear to supply new difficulties. Hence I judged that one should abstain from contemplating hypotheses, as from improper argumentation…'

Although Newton keeps caveat that hypotheses may be useful in furnishing experiment, their epistemological status is nonetheless secondary to experiment in his scientific system. He would like to pretend that experiment might be possible without the pernicious fact of language. Certainly, Newton was not harboring the sort of polemical attitude to language in science that we find in somebody like Bruno Latour:

'In actual practice, one never travels directly from objects to words, from the referent to the sign, but always through a risky intermediary pathway.'

Newton’s faith in the enlightening wholeness and totality of the natural world would not permit such statement. But the surfacing of certain ambiguity and even arbitrariness regarding the import of symbols is another matter. As early as Locke, there is a challenge to the claim that linguistic symbols are essential to the referent they represent. Language is identified as socially constructed; non-inherent to the things it names. Taking as premise this configuration of language as external and essentially alien to the things it stands for, Newton’s other, less surveyed writings, especially on theology, align more compositely with his better-known scientific works. When his natural philosophy, as an attempt to prioritize objectivity in linguistic exchange, is applied in theological investigation, the substance of those investigations (i.e. the Bible) loses textual objectivity, or totality, and becomes open to as many permutations and complications as are active in the natural world that it is supposed to explain.

Fact of science is that it becomes a social construction the moment a phenomenon is observed. Language subsumes observation from that moment of observance until and through the (possible) sublimation of observation to law. The exegetic potential within any scientific law further suggests that language never releases phenomena after phenomena have been formatted through language to data and facts. I have folded a number of passages of Newton on Moses into one, from a letter to Thomas Burnet:

'As to Moses, I do not think his description of the creation either philosophical or feigned, but that he described realities in a language artificially adapted to the sense of the vulgar. Thus when he speaks of two great lights, I suppose he means their apparent, not real greatness. So when he tells us God placed these lights in the firmament, he speaks I suppose of their apparent, not real, place, his business being, not to correct the vulgar notions in matters philosophical, but to adapt a description of the creation as handsomely as he could to the sense and capacity of the vulgar… To describe [things] distinctly as they were in themselves would have made the narration tedious and confused, amused the vulgar, and become a philosopher more than a prophet... If it be said that the expression of making and setting two great lights in the firmament is more poetical than natural, so also are some other expressions of Moses, as when he tells us the windows or floodgates of heaven were opened (Genesis 7) and afterward stopped again (Genesis 8), and yet the things signified by such figurative expressions are not ideal or moral but true…'

Surrounding this argument on the fictive in Moses’ dyadic firmament, there is a lengthier discussion of the six days that it took to create the earth. Newton's six days are ideational, each assigned the sense of a day according to the thing created, in order to convey the notion of diurnal, developmental creation. Grammar is secondary to rhetoric. According to Newton, Moses is configuring his description of the creation of the universe to create a sense of aesthetic wholeness or continuity. The implication is that the textual objectivity of Moses as we receive it from the Bible is undercut by and not correlative to the natural objectivity of the universal process of creation. Moses’ rhetorical purpose receives primacy in Newton’s reading of him. Additionally, if we concede, as I suspect we must, to Newton the idiosyncrasy of his intellectual engagement, the probability that he is as heavily invested in the factuality of his reading of Moses as he is in the factuality of observations sublimated to scientific truth, we must assume that Newton arrived at his conclusion of Moses by means parallel to those used in scientific experiment.

In essence, it must be assumed that Newton submitted Moses to as much experimental rigor as was received by his theory of gravity or light. Moses too must be a conclusion from deduction to induction. Moses, too, has received the burden of experimentation. There is, however, no materiality to Moses. He is undeniably, in so far as he is concerned to Newton, an idea—-a rhetorical template placed by God—-by which Newton could extend his own understanding of the genesis and nature of the physical world. Between the theological and the scientific, the permeability is not defined as faith against fact. These are not spheres in conflict. Experimental capacity suffuses all manner of observation, especially when channeled through language. Moses’ sagacity, to Newton, is determined by his nimble manipulation of the amorphousness of language.

De Man on Locke:

''Abuse' of language is, of course, itself the name of a trope: catachresis. This is indeed how Locke describes mixed modes. They are capable of inventing the most fantastic entities by dint of the positional power inherent in language. They can dismember the texture of reality and reassemble it in the most capricious of ways, pairing man with woman or human being with beast in the most unnatural shapes. Something monstrous lurks in the most innocent of catachreses: when one speaks of the legs of the table or the face of the mountain, catachresis is already turning into prosopopeia, and one begins to perceive a world of potential ghosts and monsters. By elaborating his theory of language as a motion from simple ideas to mixed modes, Locke has deployed the entire fan-shape or (to remain within light imagery) the entire spectrum or rainbow of tropological totalization, the anamorphosis of tropes which has to run its full course whenever one engages, however reluctantly or tentaviely, the question of language as figure. In Locke, it began in the arbitrary, metonymic contiguity of word-sounds to their meanings, in which the word is a mere token in the service of the natural entity, and it concludes with the catachresis of mixed modes in which the word can be said to produce of and by itself the entity it signifies and that has no equivalence in nature. Locke condemns catachresis severely: 'he that hath IDEAS of substances disagreeing with the real existence of things, so far wants the materials of true knowledge in his understanding, and hath instead thereof CHIMERAS... He that thinks the CENTAUR stands for some real being, imposes on himself and mistkes words for things' (bk. 3, chap. 10, p. 104). But the condemnation, by Locke's own argument, now takes all language for its target, for at no point in the course of the demonstration can the empirical entity be sheltered from tropological defiguration. The ensuing situation is intolerable and makes the soothing conclusion of book 3, entitled 'Of the Remedies of the Foregoing Imperfections and Abuses [of Language],' into one of the least convincing sections of the Essay. One turns to the tradition engendered by Locke's work in the hope of finding some assistance out of the predicament.''

ie. Newton or, more dynamically, Newton through Edwards. More on this at some other point. This post is meant as tribute to the genius of Isaac Newton

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Polyphloisbos and Arnaut Daniel

Plato’s Cratylus deals at length with the original nature of some words. There are certain words which naturally surface like oxygen through the pool of language to the world. Some words actually do just come up from the ground like Holderlin’s flowers-—words that seem to embody their sense in their sound—-perfect, natural words. Pound’s proselytizing of Arnaut Daniel, troubadour, as the greatest poet that ever lived was premised on Daniel’s capacity to use these kinds of words with greatest range and ease.

An example from Homer: In the Illiad, phloisbos refers to the noise and confusion of battle. Elsewhere, in describing the sea, polyphloisbos is used for the sound of waves on the shore or on the fore of a ship. It channels the noise and confusion of a battle scene onto the crash of water against an object. Polyphloisbos is aggregate, percussive, embattled, confused and specific. It is the only word for the crash of water on a ship’s crest.

Additionally, it circles sonically on its percussive stresses. POlyPHLOisBOS: Crash/recession/surge/recession/final, conclusive 'B'-crash. It is sonically a wave against an object, surging and receding and returning with upshot. Listen to the way waves sound next time you are by a sea-beat, rocky shore. They SAY ‘polyphloisbos’

Poetry’s purpose, then, perhaps, is to improve our attention to the natural sound of our world through the language we use to consider that world. Arnaut Daniel is the greatest poet that ever lived if he is able to suffuse our grasp of the world with the feel of cleanliness and clarity in the sound of his language. His words make us better witnesses to the aural niceties of our world

See also Gavin Douglas, Pound’s translations of Daniel, and a number of passages from the Divine Comedy

Titus Flavius Vespasianus

Roman Emperor 69-79 AD noted for administrative and financial reforms that salvaged the empire from the critical state it was left in by Nero

Suetonius: 'Industrious, and the simplicity of his life was taken as model... He cultivated a bluff manner, characteristic of the humble origins he liked to recall. His initial appointments reflected his astuteness in building a powerful political party of which the core was his own family'

After the Year of the Four Emperors, the civil war, and the destruction of the capital by fire, the Roman republic was utterly baffled and beaten financially and psychically. Vespasian immediately supplied grain and granted pardon to those embroiled in Nero's excessive treason hunts. Brought sense along with grain. Said: 'I will not kill a dog that barks at me'

Vespasian headed massive public works projects to rehabilitate the republic, including the Colosseum and a Temple of Peace. Especially generous to men of letters and rhetoricians. Many authors speak suspiciously well of Vespasian. Reminds us that the key to history is endearment to its authors.

Last words were 'Væ, puto deus fio,' 'Shit, I think I'm becoming a god'

Monday, December 15, 2008

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, X

The ontological implications of aesthetic comport for Barry Lyndon transcend mere usage as model for character development. In confluence with the flattened portraiture of the film and a narrative tendency to flatten time as it is exhibited in the film, Barry Lyndon abides in a larger argument of synchronicity, or resonance, of existence.


If there are, still, tensions and climaxes in [certain films] which leave nothing to be desired as regards drama or tragedy, it is because, in the absence of traditional dramatic causality, the incidents in [these] films develop effects of analogy and echo. [A certain hero] never reaches the final crisis (which destroys him and saves him) by progressive dramatic linking but because the circumstances somehow or other affect him, build up inside him like the vibrant energy in a resonating body. He does not develop; he is transformed; overturning finally like an iceberg whose center of buoyancy has shifted unseen.

The duels, as I have described, echo each other and fold the film into a momentous singularity. The framing of narrative action around the imminence of events further flattens out the way we experience the film. It progresses but, as it seems to do so in a more vertical mode, it also holds still. From this peculiar axis, action happens, has happened and is about to happen at once. And rather than focus on the flux between past, present and forthcoming, the film focuses on synchronic fluxions and the flat presence of their occurrence. The epilogue reads:


All fluxions are compressed to one. With the same ideational totality by which the narrator is ubiquitous across time, the persons narrated in the story are equal upon the final account of the film. They are flattened in the hands of history. Like the 18c paintings that are the film’s aesthetic reference point, the film’s sense of history is of totality upon a canvas. All players are together and, taking account of the film’s narrative frame as premise for understanding history on a vertical axis of ubiquity, all players are carrying out their actions in perpetuity.

Barry Lyndon forces its viewer to experience film as painting: cinematographeum, ut pictora. But, beyond its handle on historical representation, the film’s sense of time suggests that history, as we experience it, is totalizing. By extension, we too become flattened in the hands of time, if we follow the argument of this film. Barry’s poetry, his aesthetic comport, becomes pictorial. And portraiture, by its subsuming presence in the lives of the film’s personages, seeps into the poetry of these people.

I will finish my account of the film with the same integrity to ambiguity, which characterizes Bazin’s more compelling writings. The film seems to be an effort to mediate an interface between time and aesthetic. Its aesthetic, its poetry, becomes contra-chronological. It is a poetry that, by its peculiar alignment with portraiture, becomes contra-poetic. And its portraiture becomes, by the sheer diachronic nature of film, spread into time like measured, poetic verse. Whether or not Barry Lyndon indeed resolves the epistemic rift between painting and poetry—-whether or not film could serve in the capacity of an aesthetic meeting point between these two, ancient rivals—-is a crucial question which I note without resolving.

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, IX

Proper aesthetic comport is structurally determined by the relative amount of positive alignment of a character to a shared, social mode. Barry’s success with Lady Lyndon is measurable by his capacity to apply a courtly manner to situations necessitating it and to transcend that manner when needed. There is a certain daring and disregard when Barry and Lady Lyndon are walking together in a courtyard, soon after their initial meeting, and they step together over a partition of lawn. All other people in the scene are definitely on the designed paths. Barry and Lady Lyndon are together carrying courtliness beyond its said limits. Like Lady Lyndon, when she brings the Schubert out with her onto the balcony, they carry their courtliness inside them. They embody it, in so far as they have made its aesthetic system their ostensibly natural system.

Barry elsewhere carries more courtliness than members of an aristocratic hierarchy who, presumably, should more naturally bear that aesthetic inside them. The duel scenes are an example of this. In both scenes, but especially in the latter, Barry, the “insolent Irish upstart, [of] lowness [of] birth and general brutality of manners... this lowbred ruffian,” as Bullingdon describes him, exhibits greater stamina and sprezzatura than Bullingdon, who, due to the nobility of his birth, should be calmer and more in control. As Bullingdon vomits and trembles in terror, Barry stares unabatedly at his opponent. Barry takes his opponent’s shot without a shake of insecurity. He is, in short, more courtly and aesthetically in keeping with the measure of the situation. The quality of certain manners is completely subsumed into and sensible by the extent of those manners’ alignment to an aesthetic exhibition. Barry simply looks better in his station than Bullingdon. And Barry’s capacity for comport is qualitatively natural: He exhibited as much relative stamina and sprezzatura in his first duel with Quin.

There is, however, a quantitative growth, or cultivation, of this natural capacity as the film progresses. Barry enters the Prussian army because he was idiotic about the extent to which he could manipulate his comport and language to his benefit. He oversteps his aesthetic, pretending to Captain Potzdorf that the British Ambassador in Berlin is his uncle, with the preposterous name of O’Grady, even going so far as to offer the Captain a letter of introduction, and further describes the English king and his ministers as if he were intimate with them. Potzdorf thus determines that Barry is an imposter and a deserter. And Barry must consequently volunteer for the Prussian army to save himself from prison. In this capacity, he saves Potzdorf’s life and is awarded two Frederic d’or as the Colonel says to him:

Corporal Barry, you're a gallant soldier, and evidently have come of good stock but you're idle and unprincipled. You're a bad influence on the men. And for all your bravery, I'm sure you'll come to no good.

At which Barry replies:

I hope the Colonel is mistaken regarding my character. I have fallen into bad company, it is true, but I've only done as other soldiers have. And, above all, I've never had a kind protector before to show that I was worthy of better things. The Colonel may say I'm a ruined lad, and send me to the Devil. But, be sure of this, I would go to the Devil to serve the Regiment.

Barry has gone from ostentatious fabrication to artful manipulation. His lies have become more artfully absorbed into his language. The plane of Barry’s falsity could be described as less bulging, less adjunct, and its smoothness more ingratiating to Potzdorf, who soon commissions Barry to the capacity of prevaricator and fabricator, as a counter-spy in the city of Berlin. Barry’s equivocation is nearly flawless as he machinates a counter-counter-espionage, by revealing himself to and collaborating with the Chevalier de Balibari. There is a sense that Barry is determining a character that has always been within him. Bazin on this kind of character development:

As for the characters themselves, they exist and change only in reference to a purely internal kind of time… Let us not say that the transformation of the characters takes place at the level of the “soul.” But it has at least to occur at that depth of their being into which consciousness only occasionally reaches down. This does not mean at the level of the unconscious or the subconscious but rather the level on which Jean-Paul Sartre calls the “basic project” obtains, the level of ontology. Thus [this type] of character does not evolve; he ripens or at the most becomes transformed…

Bazin indexes this kind of characterization by its ‘vertical gravity,’ as opposed to a development by ‘horizontal causality.’ Barry’s growth comes from a character that rises upward from inside him. In regard to character development in relative alignment to the situational mandates of the film, this film’s character development is horizontally flattened and contained. Barry’s cultivation of character contained within him is the ontic measure by which I identify aesthetic comport. His being comes to be by a bringing forth through aesthetically structured behavior. And it is more distinguished in Barry because he seems to be the only personage in the film that conscientiously cultivates and applies his aesthetic comport. I have already discussed this in regard to the determined posture he assumes in his courting of Lady Lyndon.

Letter to Anita McBride, Assistant to George W. Bush and Chief of Staff to Laura Bush

"Why did an Iraqi journalist throw his shoe at George Bush? Is our president so little respected in that land to which he fancies himself liberator? What could he possibly do between now and his departure to disprove the preponderant moronic presence that he has projected to the world?"

Not the first letter I've written to the White House. They have, as one might suspect, never responded to any of my queries.

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, VIII

Andre Bazin (1918-58)

An Aesthetic of Reality: "The dramatic role played by the marsh is due in great measure to deliberately intended qualities in the photography. This is why the horizon is always at the same height. Maintaining the same proportions between water and sky in every shot brings out one of the basic characteristics of this landscape. It is the exact equivalent, under conditions imposed by the screen, of the inner feeling men experience who are living between the sky and the water and whose lives are at the mercy of an infinitesimal shift of angle in relation to the horizon. This shows how much subtlety of expression can be got on exteriors from a camera in the hands of the man who photographed Paisa."

An Aesthetic of Reality: "The construction introduces an obviously abstract element into reality. Because we are so used to such abstractions, we no longer sense them. Orson Welles started a revolution by systematically employing a depth of focus that had so far not been used. Whereas the camera lens, classically, had focused successively on different parts of the scene, the camera of Orson Welles takes in with equal sharpness the whole field of vision contained simultaneously within the dramatic field. It is no longer the editing that selects what we see, thus giving it an a priori significance, it is the mind of the spectator which is forced to discern, as in a sort of parallelepiped of reality with the screen as its cross section, the dramatic spectrum proper to the scene… “ The flattened axis of reduced depth becomes a three-dimensional figure by the manner in which it is received by the viewer. It is given intellectual dynamic and depth by the absorption (the viewer’s projection) of psychological impact into the scene.

An Aesthetic of Reality: "Thus, the most realistic of the arts… cannot make reality entirely its own because reality must inevitably elude it at some point. Undoubtedly an improved technique, skillfully applied, may narrow the holes of the net, but one is compelled to choose between one kind of reality and another. Future technical improvement [ ] will permit the conquest of the properties of the real (color and stereoscopy for example)… The quality of the interior shots will in fact increasingly depend on a complex delicate and cumbersome apparatus. Some measure of reality must always be sacrificed in the effort of achieving it." Bazin’s negative corollary to realism is metaphysical. Reality is compromised by the surrealism of equipment. At the opposite end, I would add that reality is further compromised by oversaturation possible with certain photographic apparatuses, such as the Zeiss lens.

Cabiria: "As for the characters themselves, they exist and change only in reference to a purely internal kind of time… Let us not say that the transformation of the characters takes place at the level of the “soul.” But it has at least to occur at that depth of their being into which consciousness only occasionally reaches down. This does not mean at the level of the unconscious or the subconscious but rather the level on which Jean-Paul Sartre calls the “basic project” obtains, the level of ontology. Thus [this type] of character does not evolve; he ripens or at the most becomes transformed..."

Cabiria: "If there are, still, tensions and climaxes in [certain films] which leave nothing to be desired as regards drama or tragedy, it is because, in the absence of traditional dramatic causality, the incidents in [these] films develop effects of analogy and echo. [A certain hero] never reaches the final crisis (which destroys him and saves him) by progressive dramatic linking but because the circumstances somehow or other affect him, build up inside him like the vibrant energy in a resonating body. He does not develop; he is transformed; overturning finally like an iceberg whose center of buoyancy has shifted unseen."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, VII

Toole, Farmer Poet, later wed to Brown Bess
Born Owenbeg, later renamed County Sligo, c. 1727

Died 1763, of excessive hemorrhaging after a fall
from the seaward slopes at Mullaghmore


Potter Tim said to me
Toole, I’m told by more than two

That your wiles don’t take too well
w/your wife, g’bless her,

so that she beats you
behind shutters after the pig’s been put to rest

Toole, tell me, is it not untrue your woman
Keeps hours w/a jab on your head?

G’bless her soul, I said,
And gave him one as hard as any she ever did


An egg-sucking dog saw me coming down the road
And said to me, Toole,

How fared your chickens
This winter’s cold? How stands the grand Toole’s estate?

I said to him, scoundrel, you keep off my coop
If you want some eggs,

I’ve got a pair here for you—
Before my woman came out to slog me

Again for discussing our chickens w/a dog


What good’s a day w/o a dreg of grog?
No pig’s kept from his mud

No duck from the pond
Give me what I love and leave Toole to Toole's love


Poor Cow—the cost to keep you
Now outweights the worth of your return

In ground chuck—what’s loneliness, hard luck,
Trouble, disease or disgust

Compounded against you now?
What amount of worry could compare

To the crude stupidity in a happy calf’s heart?
The lodge of life in your lung

Is a summer apart from a bowl of stodge—
And I cannot particularly complain, I will prepare

You w/a potato and some grog—the Earth
Gives us so much—Poor Cow


Toole’s bag of flesh and bone
Has no need of any salve

Give me a dreg and a pig’s foot
And you’ll see me as soon afoot on the field

Toole, appearing in Barry Lyndon:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, VI

To transition from pace by using pace to describe the uses of aesthetic comport in the film, I will briefly read what I understand to be the central moment in the film. Despite the bulky presence that Handel’s Sarabande has in the film, as the main title, end title, and motif title for the duels, I would argue that it is not the central musical composition. The central moment in Barry’s adventure is his successful courting of Lady Lyndon. It, in effect, changes his life. And the entirety of Barry’s seduction happens in less than four minutes:

The action moves rapidly but unhurriedly from one moment to the next, as Barry and Lady Lyndon are in a gambling room, exchanging one bet and the next. The camera lingers on Barry’s staring at Lady Lyndon and on her staring back at him catching her gaze and the two staring at each other. Schubert’s Piano Trio in E-flat builds in the background, under the sound of gambling chips clinking, as if the music were playing there, in the film, in the background. The scene and its players are measured by the music and we must presume that they sense this measure, if they can hear the score. Lady Lyndon departs for a breath of air, the camera cuts to her, walking outside, in rhythmic step with the beat of the composition. She has taken the harmonious integration of sonic experience in the gambling hall outside with her. It is carried like a metaphorical object from the actual world into the ideational world. She, by consequence, becomes less objective, or real, and enters, in her exeunt moment, an ontological zone of aesthetic mediation. She makes her way across the balcony, to a columned perimeter and stops to stare into a courtyard. She, again, has an empty, oiled look in her eyes, until she senses somebody behind her, and her eyes turn downward and to her right.

We see Barry through the window and he definitely pauses before exiting. He is, presumably, considering his actions. Barry exits the mansion and enters the aesthetic space of mediation carried onto the balcony by Lady Lyndon. We hear Barry’s heels clicking on the balcony floor and they are just outside the beat of the music. Barry, it would seem, is making the effort to align himself with the sonic steadiness of the moment’s aesthetic unfolding. His effort belies a surreptitious intent. His attraction is not entirely natural. He has absorbed rhythm to the extent that he is evidently manipulating it. He is following the pace. He approaches Lady Lyndon with unlocking gaze. She turns and there is no question of intent on either part. As Barry takes Lady Lyndon’s hand into his, there is no surprise. They are already romantically destined and we are instead more intently watching the grace of their courtship—-the steadily unfolding strokes of their romance. Pace presupposes upshot. Schubert, the Romantic aesthete that surges from the music of Schubert, has prepared the requisites of passion. In so far as Barry’s mettle is able to meet the demand of the aesthetic, Barry is able, by his sheer energy and volition, to successfully court Lady Lyndon and move himself into a higher sphere of society than that which circumstance had previously afforded him. Barry, by his successful alignment of character to aesthetic pace, or what I will term aesthetic comport, creates a gravitational pull by which he is able to draw Lady Lyndon into his orbit. Gravity is mediated by aesthetic. Comport is the key to society.

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, V

In an interview with Michel Ciment for L’Express, Stanley Kubrick said the following regarding his preparation for Barry Lyndon:

On Barry Lyndon, I accumulated a very large picture file of drawings and paintings taken from art books. These pictures served as the reference for everything we needed to make -- clothes, furniture, hand props, architecture, vehicles, etc. Unfortunately, the pictures would have been too awkward to use while they were still in the books, and I'm afraid we finally had very guiltily to tear up a lot of beautiful art books. They were all, fortunately, still in print, which made it seem a little less sinful. Good research is an absolute necessity and I enjoy doing it. You have an important reason to study a subject in much greater depth than you would ever have done otherwise, and then you have the satisfaction of putting the knowledge to immediate good use.

The background of the film as extensively incorporates a matrix of pictures of paintings as it does the novel by Thackeray. Kubrick tore scenes from European painting and reconfigured them to film. And the most immediate evocation of portraiture in the film is the sheer painted look of many scenes. As I have previously described, the Zeiss lens, adapted to the cinema camera, allowed Kubrick to emulate, by candlelight and dull light streaming through windows, the reduced depth of field, and subdued strength of light, in paintings by Caravaggio and the followers of his chiaroscuro, which include the Utrecht Caravaggisti (Gerrit van Honthorst, Hendrick Terbrugghen, et al.), who would later influence Gerard Dou and, more importantly, Vermeer, but also Georges de La Tour.

The Caravaggisti scenes in Barry Lyndon include the candlelit gambling sessions, Barry’s card game with Nora, his meeting in the tent with Captain Grogan, his seductive dinner with Lischen, the lonely German mother, his initial and ill-fated evening with Captain Potzdorf, in addition to a number scenes in Barryville and at Lady Lyndon’s castle, etc. In these scenes, there is scarcely an abrupt movement. Although they breathe with dialogue and exposition, that breath is never heaved. The still, muted effect is emphasized in a scene where, just after Lady Lyndon catches Barry in the garden with one of her maids, she is shown in her tub, half-naked and in an immobile stupor. Her body and face shine dully with an oiled stillness. She stares blankly through some unknown thought. The camera pulls away and she does not move. We are looking at an embodiment of flat elegance—-of painting. She is elsewhere described by the narrator as occupying a place “not very much more important than the elegant carpets and pictures, which would form the pleasant background of [Barry’s] existence.” Her muteness does not exactly register as intelligible dullness. She is rather subsumed into the film’s flatness of field. The field, as I have previously said, suggests a certain emotive corollary to a psychological register of flatness. Like the troubled scene in Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece, the personhood of subject is lost in the reverie of portraiture. Lady Lyndon lives and breathes, and is fundamentally engaged in the actions of the film, but simultaneously absorbed in the portraiture of scenes, as flat as the frozen moment in which we see Barry depart into his carriage.

Flattened Time in Barry Lyndon, IV

There is one moment in the entire movie where the life of the camera, its constant moving from one place to another, its recording of the movement of others even as it stands still, cedes to complete cellular motionlessness. Just after Barry’s leg has been amputated and he has lost all claim to society, lost even his only son, is embroiled in outstanding debts, and is “utterly baffled and beaten,” as the narrator describes him, there is a shot of Lyndon, climbing with his crutches into a carriage, that freezes for about five seconds. The dead shot is not so much a reminder of the still photographic genealogy of film, as it is an illustration of the still, unmovable state of what we can only imagine to be Lyndon’s decimated psyche. The entirety of the film has been motivated by his energy, his volition, his course across Europe and history and now, for five awkward seconds, the viewer is forced to stare at a figure so wrecked that the camera, who has accompanied his lively course throughout, emulates what we can only suspect he is sensing: the silence and stillness of his own decimation--something like Wordsworth's 'still, sad music of humanity.' The entirety of his past is implicit in this consequential moment, in addition to the totality of his future, as the narrator says:

Sometime after, he traveled to the continent. His life there, we have not the means of following accurately. But he appears to have resumed his former profession of a gambler, without his former success. He never saw Lady Lyndon again.

We are receiving information about Barry’s future in the past tense. These actions are already all completed. In this moment of stillness, Lyndon is everything he had ever been and would be. There is no historical depth yet we are staring for five seconds at a character destroyed by history. In the same manner that he has half his body in and the other half out of the carriage, he is both within consequence and without. We stare at him in this moment with a complete psychological grasp that is parallel to the singular momentous gaze by which we absorb a painting. I will return at some point to the narrator’s role in this, but will depart here to the resonance that this deep, psychological flatness has with the look of the film, determined by an instrument, the Zeiss lens, which reduces visual depth throughout the entire film. The psychological flatness of the film’s frozen moment is not only premised by a consistent visual field of total absorption, but that absorption additionally subsumes the psychological flatness into itself, creating a number of scenes that are striking, if only because they seem to embody a certain, still, silent human expression.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, III

Lyndon and 18c Painting, by Marco Garcia, University of Malaga

Monday, December 8, 2008

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon, II

In a conflation of diachronic film techniques and a certain material composition, which emphasizes the static totality of the screen, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon could be described as an aesthetic experiment of painting time. In similar spirit to Horace’s ut pictora, poesis, the film hovers around a theoretical platform that could be articulated as something like ut pictora, cinematographeum.

It is widely known that the film looks very painterly, especially due to the use of a Zeiss lens developed for NASA satellites, which was designed to capture light at higher speeds and thus reduce depth in perspective and flatten out clarity in low-lit scenes. This, at least, is what Stanley Kubrick used the lens for.

There would not be enough theoretical heft to suggest that the use of such a lens characterizes the film for its pictorial quality if it were only the use of this lens working out the flatness of the film. There are various aspects of Barry Lyndon’s technical structure that broaden the sense of flatness beyond its lush look. It is not just the look, but look, in addition to narrative structure, characterization of players, and the film’s implicit argument on history that compound to flatten the film at various, technical axes. The complete axial platform of flatness not only requires, indeed coerces, the viewer to experience this film as if it were a painting. The totality, or completed feel, inherent to film, furthers this sense of a finished, polished plane.

This sense, however, is conflicted by the insistent narrative that is correlative to, and pulled forward by, actions in sequence. It is as if the film were trying to reconcile the rift between painting and poetry, identified by Plato and expounded by Lessing. Poetry is complicit to time because it is read through time, whereas painting is experienced in a moment. The peculiarity of film, and what Barry Lyndon most elegantly suggests, is that film is a medium engaged in the marriage of these once, irremediable, opposing axes. In film, this conflict becomes the combustibility at its core. The life of Kubrick’s film, furthermore, is invested in articulating a structure that permits these two engines to simultaneously alternate and work against each other, to the benefit of the viewer.

I do not believe that any work of art could ever attain totality. There is indeed too much in the world as we experience it for that. Totality as it is registered in film, on the other hand, is ideational. Films always feel finished. There is enough evidence to suggest that this feeling is actively and aggressively stimulated in Barry Lyndon from beginning to end; so much so that beginning and end are squeezed into a synchronic sense of existence. The dynamic nature of that sense is catalyzed by the contrary, deep historicity of the film and the sheer narrative structure, which repeatedly continues to evoke flatness: a flatness of scene, a flatness of narrative, a flatness of time, a flatness of history that culminates, in so far as a flat thing can culminate, in a democratization of all terms, platitudes, and players. Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, nee Redmond Barry, is perhaps the most ostentatious representation of democracy in technique, and totality in film, that has yet been seen.


It's been said that Dante Gabriel Rossetti was sent to earth to translate Dante Alighieri, and, had he lived longer than his lot allocated for him, he would've gotten past the New Life to give English the greatest Comedy it could have hoped for.

It's likely that gravity is a thing we get only with age. Presumably, the sun is elder to its circling spheres. Rossetti was just old enough to get the feeling of the New Life, but sometimes I think he'd have botched the Comedy had he approached it. I think him just shy of the gravity for Villon

He was half-sent to Earth to translate Dante, and half-trained from infancy by his father for that task; Villon, to him, would've seemed a beast. Rossetti was quite outside his orbit

In any manner, every first snow of the Winter, I'm reminded of this poem, in Rossetti's English, but I remember it differently. 'But where...' strikes me overly plaintive; I think it better as 'and where...' Additionally the 'but' throws a harsh 'b' in there that the 'and' doesn't, plus the 'and' keeps the sound above the surface. Another pad on that pool that I've inserted is the 'all' in that line

Villon was a criminal. He had no time for plaintive bemusings. I've made a few other improvements. This is the poem for snowfalls


François Villon (1431-1489)

TELL me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia, and where Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?
Where is Echo, beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,--
She whose beauty was more than human? . . .
AND where are all the snows of yester-year?

Where's Héloise, the learned nun,
For whose sake Abeillard, I ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?
(From Love he won such dule and teen!)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen
Who willed that Buridan should steer
Sewed in a sack's mouth down the Seine? . . .
AND where are all the snows of yester-year?

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lily,
With a voice like any mermaiden,--
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Aly,
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,--
And that good Joan whom Englishmen
At Rouen doomed and burned,--
Mother of God, where are they then? . . .
AND where are all the snows of yester-year?

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Save with this much for an overword,--
AND where are all the snows of yester-year?

Frankie Villon

Flattened Time In Barry Lyndon

In a conflation of film and material composition, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon could be described as an aesthetic experiment of painting time. In similar spirit to Horace’s ut pictora, poesis, the film hovers around a theoretical platform that could be articulated as something like ut pictora, cinematographeum. Kubrick frames sequences in such a way that the imminence of an event is repeatedly dramatized—flattening out the action by emphasizing imminence over outcome. Everything has already happened in the film and we are watching depictions. The narrator tells the viewer that something is about to happen and, as the action moves unhurriedly toward that event, the imminence of the event suffuses, slows and beautifies the scene. It is, in sum, an aesthetic mode characterized by portraiture. This is accomplished by a narrator repeatedly suggesting what is about to happen (affording the viewer a sense of totality—in that the narrator already knows the entire story), by the sluggish movement toward the upshot of sequences (focusing attention on the imminence of the impending outcome of a sequence), and by the sheer, oiled, elegantly still look of the film. The viewer is, in a sense, constantly waiting for the film to come to life.

Throughout Barry Lyndon, the narrator alludes to the notion that he knows what is going to happen because it has already happened. He dramatizes impending action to the viewer with phrases such as, “fate did not intend that he should remain long in the service and an accident occurred which took him out of the service in a rather singular manner,” just before Barry steals Lt. Jonathan Fakenham’s outfit and enters Prussia. Elsewhere: “He had for some time now ingratiated himself considerably with Captain Potzdorf, whose confidence in him was about to bring its reward,” just before he is put into the service of the Chevalier de Balibari. And: “There is many a man who would not understand the cause of the burst of feeling that was now about to take place,” just before Barry reveals his identity to the Chevalier, initiating the relationship that would shape his career as a professional gambler. The action is not happening as we watch the film. It has already happened and is rather being depicted for the viewer. The narrator knows the entire story. The implication for the film’s sense of time is that it is a closed phenomenon. Such totality suggests that the entire story is already spread out and complete, like a finished painting happening in front of our eyes.

Having constructed a narrative frame that focuses attention on the finished totality of the film’s sequences and on the film as a whole, Kubrick highlights this flatness in time by showing actions moving unhurriedly toward an outcome. The lengthy duel scenes are less concerned with the outcome of the pistol shots than with the procedural tedium and elegant posture of the events. We see this in the gambling scenes as well. The action moves unhurriedly from one bet to the next, focusing instead on Barry’s staring at Lady Lyndon and on her staring back at Barry and on Barry catching her gaze and the two staring at each other. When Barry steps outside to meet Lady Lyndon on the balcony, neither says anything to the other. At a certain (meta-) register, it is unnecessary: They are already together and we are instead more intently watching the grace of their courtship, the steadily unfolding strokes of their romance. The robust textures of the film’s sequences surface from delay and detail to manner. The imminence of outcomes is nearly palpable and trumps the importance of narrative timeliness. We are encouraged to watch slowly—to experience the film as we might a painting.

Another quality of the film that immediately evokes portraiture is the sheer painted look of many scenes. After Lady Lyndon catches Barry in the garden with one of her maids, she is shown in her tub, half-naked and in a kind of stupor. Her body and face shine softly with an oiled stillness. The camera pulls away and she does not move. We are literally looking at an embodiment of flat elegance, of painting. She is elsewhere described by the narrator as occupying a place “not very much more important than the elegant carpets and pictures which would form the pleasant background of [Barry’s] existence.” And, beyond the almost explicit portraiture of Lady Lyndon, the film constantly hangs on painterly expanses, from the idyllic field where Barry’s father is killed to the lush lakes around the Countess of Lyndon’s castle. In many of these scenes there is a lack of visible differentiation in detail between the foreground and the back—a lack of depth—which is literally a flattening of the visual field.

Outside of the painted look of the film and its framing of narrative action around the imminence of events (thus flattening time), flatness in Barry Lyndon inhabits a greater, ontological argument. The epilogue reads:


In the same scope that the narrator is ubiquitous across the time, the persons narrated in the story are equal upon the final account of the film. They are flattened in the hands of history. Much like the scenes of the 18c European paintings that are the film’s aesthetic reference point, the film’s sense of history is of a totality upon canvas. All players are together now and, taking account of the film’s narrative frame as premise for understanding history on an axis of ubiquitous presence, all players are carrying out their action in perpetuity. Or, rather, given the film’s insistence upon the import of imminence over upshot, all players are perpetually about to be embroiled in action. Beauty and grace in each player’s portrait surface instead from attention to detail and manner before impending, inevitable ends.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Most Unpopular Kid in High School...

...that nobody liked, you know, the one with cooties.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Telephone Conversation

Keeping with the spirit of recent posts, I add this telephone conversation between a woman and two men. Not sure where it comes from or who the speakers are but a story is just beneath the surface

And any conversation beginning with "yeah, um, ah, is your husband home?" is definitely going places

More 911 Madness

Monday, November 17, 2008

Velvet Letter

Letter to a dear friend written many years ago, returned to me recently as recording:

Re-mediation broadens register-- cuts lines across the sky for new axises of vision

Dearest Richard,

Before you begin to read this...

The letter is read and done. Its existence is perfection. We perform its emotions. In certain ways and with some things, we become the medium.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Holbein's Ghosts

'Ambassadors' by Hans Holbein the Younger, son of Holbein the Elder. The distorted object center is a skull that comes into perspective when the viewer looks up from the bottom left corner

Poetry of the subject within the true subject, or vice versa

Skull pushes outward as 'world' shoots up through the material 'earth' of the painting; in human terms: The canvas, oils, strokes are the material BUT when we look at the skull from the corner, seeing it jut out in perspective, while maintaining that we are still looking at a painting, the idea of the painting (skull) is projected forward and free from it.

Skull is held by materials -- essentially defined by 'em but additionally outside their boundary. Like watching mist above the ocean. It is still essentially water but already something else

Between the two positions, the spectator is free: Unrestricted to the material of the painting and able to spread from it in rhetorical expansion

This is the nature of Jonathan Edwards' 'active ideas,' ideas felt, living organisms of thought


They say there is a young lady in [New Haven] who is beloved of that almighty Being, who made and rules the world, and that there are certain seasons in which this great Being, in some way or other invisible, comes to her and fills her mind with exceeding sweet delight, and that she hardly cares for anything, except to meditate on him-- that she expects after a while to be received up where he is, to be raised up out of the world and caught up into heaven; being assured that he loves her too well to let her remain at a distance from him always. There she is to dwell with him, and to be ravished with his love and delight forever. Therefore, if you present all the world before her, with the richest of its treasures, she disregards it and cares not for it, and is unmindful of any pain or affliction. She has a strange sweetness in her mind, and singular purity in her affections; is most just and conscientious in all her actions; and you could not persuade her to do anything wrong or sinful, if you would give her all the world, lest she should offend this great Being. She is of a wonderful sweetness, calmness and universal benevolence of mind; especially after those seasons in which this great God has manifested himself to her mind. She will sometimes go about from place to place, singing sweetly; and seems to be always full of joy and pleasure; and no one knows for what. She loves to be alone, and to wander in the fields and on the mountains, and seems to have someone invisible always conversing with her.

Intent is to fuse (by syntax, grammar, and style) Sarah Pierpont with the Being so that it surfaces clear when we read, 'seems to have someone invisible'

I will be brief: First half of first sentence, the phrase ending with the dash, creates a structure of Being/Quality of the Being, Being/Quality of the Being, Being's action/Sarah's Quality/Being acting through Sarah;

Next phrase we see them raised up out of the world to heaven

Then, stressed, 'BEING assured...' the phrase is in passive construction; The BEING working through Sarah. They are syntactically fused.

'There she is to dwell with him and to be ravished with his love and delight forever,' Sarah locally fused with being (domestic images) and somewhat sexual too


Complete concatenation of Sarah's qualities with the GREAT BEING'S in A/B/A/B structure. We've received it enough to feel it even if we don't think about it

The last two lines have been arranged so that the two phrases, 'and no one knows for what' and 'someone invisible' are READ as the GREAT BEING. In the last two lines the Being is there and not there; we sense him with a different apparatus than that which the rest of the apostrophe functions by

We stand in the lower-left corner; idea surfaces from the material

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Stories from the Great Depression

Studs Terkel interviews people who lived through the Great Depression.

One guy says, "Kids these days couldn't deal with something like that. I wasn't afraid to die at sixteen. These days, sixteen-year olds aren't afraid to kill..."

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Barack Obama

Friday, October 31, 2008

Intimations of Richard Dadd

Harvest's end, I started the day doing laundry with The Amazing Kreskin in the background. Kreskin is a famous mentalist from the 60's. He is said to know what you are thinking, even now. These are his two tracks on running a seance:

Setting up the seance

Making it happen

Sometimes I think Kreskin is trying to hypnotize me. His drawling emphasis and repetition of instructions make me wonder if he can read your mind or merely make your mind think what he wants it to, so as to seem as if he knows what you are thinking. Either way, he's in there.

When the record was over, I wanted to hear Mick Jagger's 'Invocation of my Demon Brother'

Mick on Moog for the 1968 Kenneth Anger movie

Listening to the eleven-minute song, I started looking through old print copies of The Economist magazine online. An article from the first print edition, September 2nd, 1843, caught my eye.

"Dreadful Murder," Economist Magazine, September 2, 1843

The man murdered is a chemist named Robert Dadd. His son, "Richard Dadd, a fine young man, 24 years age, committed the act whilst labouring under an aberration of intellect." Richard Dadd was a painter, best known for the maddened detail of the paintings composed while at Bedlam for the murder of his father.

'The Fairy-Feller's Master stroke' took him nine years to complete. He worked with the single hair of a brush, reciting poetry and staring at the canvas until the next element was revealed to him.

It was initially believed that he was suffering from sunstroke caused by an extended trip in 1842 through Athens, via Corfu, then Smyrna, Constantinople, Asia Minor, Rhodes, Cyprus, Beirut, Tripoli, then walking and by mule, into Damascus and finally Jerusalem. From the Dead Sea, he took a boat up the Nile to Thebes, arriving around Christmas. In retrospect, Dadd's affliction seems more like Jerusalem Syndrome--the vision of Osiris in ancient lands.

Dadd's journal in Egypt reads:

Did he turn to look at me, from his lion bed of birth and death? I believe that I saw it, the tilt of his carved face, the shifting of the soot that hid him. Did Isis and Nephthys pause in their frozen motions of revival to flick an inscrutable gesture at me with their fingers? I do not know what I saw, I do not trust my eyes, but I am sure that I heard him. In the temple of Opet he spoke to me; he spoke truths too great to hold. That is why I do not remember his words. The ecstasy of his voice and meaning overwhelmed me but the words do not matter. I am his chosen and he suffuses me.

Days have passed; days in which I doubted the truth that Osiris has given to me, and thought myself possessed of evil. But the truth of my fate is with me and I cannot doubt it.

Phillips is here with me now. His eyes are tiny and distant and I wonder if he too suspects the things that will be coming after us, but I think not. The air is greasy with the burnt caramel fetor of his pipe. I share his smoke and the world slows. For a moment I am calm and I grin foolishly at Phillips. That is when the burning begins, but it is only in my eyes and I think that it is just the smoke. I rub at them and my fingers begin to sting. Phillips says something, he is asking if I am all right, his eyes focus on me through the haze of smoke and I try to say that I am fine. The words leave me, I feel them go, my mouth forms into communicative shapes and they are gone to swirl with the smoke, forming new patterns as they mingle and breed. I cannot hear them. I say 'I cannot hear the words' but those words flutter up with the others. Phillips is speaking again but his words do not hold any meaning, he has invented a new language, it is a trick. His words have sound but no meaning. We must be opposites, he and I. It is a sign that he is my opposite. His moustache bristles; isn't that the word? That's what moustaches do, they bristle. Each hair is perfectly clear : I could count them if I wanted, but my eyes will not stay still and they burn. The sweet taint of the opium is sitting on my mind, binding my thoughts like tar. He is moving : Phillips is looming, getting closer. He touches my shoulder and says something in his new not-language and that is when the crush of thoughts and the blanket of opium-calm over them ignite into pain, and I remember nothing more but the screams that tear at my throat.

Osiris had entered his soul. He would never release himself from that influence. Having killed his father, Dadd fled to Paris, attempted another murder along the way and was captured outside Calais. Before he had killed his father, he had 'killed' many others, including his traveling partner, Philips:

This morning I killed Phillips. I waited for him in his room. I had his razor. His own razor, still a little sticky with his shaving soap. I stared at the patterns on it as I waited for him. I could see them in the corners of the room. They are always there now, at the corners of my vision, darting before me, dancing, fornicating, twisting over the ceiling, their tiny faces contorted and gleeful, their voices high and constant and through their chatter I hear His voice, deeper and compelling, telling me over and over that Phillips is not to be trusted, that he is evil and that he will deceive me if I let him. I kept my eyes on the smudges of soap because I did not want to see them, did not need to see them. It was not decent that they could be so pleased at what I was there to do. Not decent that I shared their elation when I must be composed. I must be calm to carry out the act.

I was sure, then. I brimmed with certainty, the doubts belonged to someone else, a me who was not me. I turned them over, the thoughts of the not me. The thoughts that tell me that the voices are not true, that Phillips is my friend, that I am scaring him. I smiled as I dismissed those thoughts and exhilaration tingled in my skin.

Phillips came in and frowned to see me in his room. I told him that I knew of his evil and my voice rang with Their power. I told him that I would bring justice upon him. I hit him to the floor and pinned him there. My hand was over his mouth, forcing his head back. His eyes were dreadfully wide; his breath on my hand was hot and quick. I noticed that his collar had been done up too tight and had made his neck red. He hardly struggled at all. He did not have time. I ran the blade over his throat with a firm quick movement and the blood that poured out bubbled a little.

As I watched the focus of his eyes slip away from me, dip into nothingness, he walked in the door. There was nothing in my hands. The razor was gone.

'I killed you. I killed you just now. Must I kill you again?' I heard myself speak and it was my own voice, weak and faltering. The power was gone. I had failed and they had repudiated me for it. I leapt at Phillips, sure that if I killed him again they would come back to me and I would be certain again. I wanted to cut his throat and see him bleed again but the blade was gone, so I clawed at him and tried to throttle him. There was no strength in my hands. My limbs quivered and I fell to the floor when he pushed me and did not get up. I sat and wept like a scorned woman.

For an age Phillips stood where I had attacked him and stared at me as though he did not know me. I crawled away from him and hid my face in the valance at the foot of the bed. When he spoke his voice was unsteady.

'Richard, you must get help. This is not sunstroke.'

I could not answer him and he did not say anything more. When he left he locked the door.

Dadd was convinced that he was being beckoned by Osiris to wage war against the demons. Dadd's journal:

There are angels and demons in the world. Spirits of power and beauty, and of curdling horror. And there are the lesser spirits, the fairies, who are to us as deer are to horses but who share our mixture of the divine and the wretched. They speak to me and tug coyly at my spirit and they are wondrous to behold.

I tried to escape them, when I came back. I threw myself into my old life, as though I could fit myself back into the narrow rut that I had sprung from. I tried not to see. The competition was a mistake, a distraction, trying to escape their influence through feverish days and nights of work, design after design. But it was for nothing. The spirits would not let me be, and they saw to it that I failed.

There are things that go unseen, things that walk in the skins of men, but evil has crept into their flesh and hollowed them out. They are hollow men who smile and talk and act as men do to hide the malignant swirled emptiness inside. But I walk with angels and demons and it is my curse that I can see those who are marked with emptiness. I walk with angels and demons and I see…

Disentanglings: Dadd would die in Bedlam, having been committed there for the murder of his father when he was 24 years old. It is exactly 165 years to the day, today, October 31, 2008, that Dadd was captured outside Calais. The more I have researched him, the greater the assonance:

There was a painting that caught my eye at the center for British Art on the first day that I moved to Yale. I stared at it for what could have been a few, drawn-out minutes, or a rapid half-hour or an hour. I know now that it was a Richard Dadd.


"Osiris is quite different, he demands sympathy. He is the completely helpless one, the essential victim. Yet he is avenged and his passion has an end at last, when justice and order are re-established on earth. The other gods are transcendent, distinct from their worshipers. Osiris, however, is immanent. He is the sufferer with all mortality but at the same time he is the power of revival and fertility in the world. He is the power of growth in plants and of reproduction in animals and human beings. He is both dead and the source of all living. Hence to become Osiris is to become one with the cosmic cycles of death and rebirth." (R.T. Rundle Clark, 1859)

The Master at Bedlam, Dr. William Hood, wrote about Dadd:

Dadd paints in a bare room in daylight. He uses two easels, one bearing the painting and the other a palette. He holds a brush in his right hand and a magnifying-glass in his left, and often the brush has but a single hair. The fineness of the detail he paints is extreme, and sometimes quite imperceptible, to me at any rate. Sometimes he will remain motionless for minutes on end, with the brush-tip against the canvas and the glass in close proximity. As he works, he often chants his verse, or makes hissing sounds in the manner of an animal.

Haydon, for his part, is greatly changed in his opinion of both the painting and its executor. From a former estimation of gratitude and pride, he has progressed through fascination and revulsion to an attitude today that is not so very far removed from terror. Dadd has asked the steward to pose for him, and so to be put into the picture, but Haydon will have no such thing. Asked why he then continues to wear Dadd’s ring, the unhappy steward has been heard to claim that its jewel serves as a charm against evil.

'He lives there and there he is. At Harvest's end his year begins'

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Ezra Pound's Periplum

Periplum is a word coined by Ezra Pound. It is meant to signify a map as delineated from the perspective of the navigator approaching a landmass, as opposed to a disembodied eye from above. Periplum across time encases history as experienced process, rather than summarized aggregation.

Pound reads Canto I, Odysseus setting back to sea, to Ithaca; translated from the Latin of Andreas Divus, 1538.
(Recorded Washington DC, 1958)

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas...

Elsewhere the Seafarer, from the Saxon.
(Recorded Cambridge, MA, 1939)

May I for my own self song's truth reckon,
Journey's jargon, how I in harsh days
Hardship endured oft.
Bitter breast-cares have I abided,
Known on my keel many a care's hold,
And dire sea-surge, and there I oft spent
Narrow nightwatch nigh the ship's head
While she tossed close to the cliffs. Coldly afflicted,
Me feet were by frost benumbed...

Poetry surfaces from the pool of history as a navigator across time. The process resists discrete localization, but is more like the surfacing of impassioned states: one could imagine air gravitating upward, through an atmospheric mass of water, toward more air.

The poetry is often like a gasping

"By no means an orderly Dantescan rising" says Ezra Pound, in the Pisan Cantos, written in the tiger cage at Pisa, Summer 1945.

He was permitted two books in the cage, a Chinese dictionary and a copy of Confucius. Translations of the Confucian Odes:

Yaller Bird

Flies, blue flies on a fence rail

Ol' Brer Rabbit watchin his feet
(Recorded Spoleto, 1970)

In looking outward from history, he accounts for mud and light and everything in between. It is small justice that I do him here, on his 123rd birthday. This is a propitiatory posting. From him, I go forward: Learn limpidity and allow nothing less

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Wright's 'Audacity to Hope' Sermon

The word 'hope' is a catch-all for positive change in American polity. Bill Clinton's campaign used his origin from Hope, Arkansas as a magical nudge toward garnering hope for necessary change in Washington. The word has figured prominently in Barack Obama's political persona. He titled his second book, "The Audacity of Hope."

The title references a sermon by J. Wright, who has his own reading of 'Hope.' Critics of the relationship between the pastor and the presidential candidate might read this, but would never admit it, because with such admission they'd have to admit the truth and beauty of the sermon: its essential Americanism.

Several years ago while I was in Richmond, the Lord allowed me to be in that city during the week of the annual convocation at Virginia Union University School of Theology. There I heard the preaching and teaching of Reverend Frederick G. Sampson of Detroit, Michigan. In one of his lectures, Dr. Sampson spoke of a painting I remembered studying in humanities courses back in the late '50s. In Dr. Sampson's powerful description of the picture, he spoke of it being a study in contradictions, because the title and the details on the canvas seem to be in direct opposition.

The painting's title is "Hope." It shows a woman sitting on top of the world, playing a harp. What more enviable position could one ever hope to achieve than being on top of the world with everyone dancing to your music?

As you look closer, the illusion of power gives way to the reality of pain. The world on which this woman sits, our world, is torn by war, destroyed by hate, decimated by despair, and devastated by distrust. The world on which she sits seems on the brink of destruction. Famine ravages millions of inhabitants in one hemisphere, while feasting and gluttony are enjoyed by inhabitants of another hemisphere. This world is a ticking time bomb, with apartheid in one hemisphere and apathy in the other. Scientists tell us there are enough nuclear warheads to wipe out all forms of life except cockroaches. That is the world on which the woman sits in Watt's painting.

Our world cares more about bombs for the enemy than about bread for the hungry. This world is still more concerned about the color of skin than it is about the content of character—a world more finicky about what's on the outside of your head than about the quality of your education or what's inside your head. That is the world on which this woman sits.

You and I think of being on top of the world as being in heaven. When you look at the woman in Watt's painting, you discover this woman is in hell. She is wearing rags. Her Georgefredericwattshope tattered clothes look as if the woman herself has come through Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Her head is bandaged, and blood seeps through the bandages. Scars and cuts are visible on her face, her arms, and her legs.

I. Illusion of Power vs. Reality of Pain

A closer look reveals all the harp strings but one are broken or ripped out. Even the instrument has been damaged by what she has been through, and she is the classic example of quiet despair. Yet the artist dares to entitle the painting Hope. The illusion of power—sitting on top of the world—gives way to the reality of pain.

And isn't it that way with many of us? We give the illusion of being in an enviable position on top of the world. Look closer, and our lives reveal the reality of pain too deep for the tongue to tell. For the woman in the painting, what looks like being in heaven is actually an existence in a quiet hell.

I've been a pastor for seventeen years. I've seen too many of these cases not to know what I'm talking about. I've seen married couples where the husband has a girlfriend in addition to his wife. It's something nobody talks about. The wife smiles and pretends not to hear the whispers and the gossip. She has the legal papers but knows he would rather try to buy Fort Knox than divorce her. That's a living hell.

I've seen married couples where the wife had discovered that somebody else cares for her as a person and not just as cook, maid jitney service, and call girl all wrapped into one. But there's the scandal: What would folks say? What about the children? That's a living hell.

I've seen divorcees whose dreams have been blown to bits, families broken up beyond repair, and lives somehow slipping through their fingers. They've lost control. That's a living hell.

I've seen college students who give the illusion of being on top of the world—designer clothes, all the sex that they want, all the cocaine or marijuana or drugs, all the trappings of having it all together on the outside—but empty and shallow and hurting and lonely and afraid on the inside. Many times what looks good on the outside—the illusion of being in power, of sitting on top of the world—with a closer look is actually existence in a quiet hell.

That is exactly where Hannah is in 1 Samuel 1 :1-18. Hannah is top dog in this three-way relationship between herself, Elkanah, and Peninnah. Her husband loves Hannah more than he loves his other wife and their children. Elkanah tells Hannah he loves her. A lot of husbands don't do that. He shows Hannah that he loves her, and many husbands never get around to doing that. In fact, it is his attention and devotion to Hannah that causes Peninnah to be so angry and to stay on Hannah's case constantly. Jealous! Jealousy will get hold of you, and you can't let it go because it won't let you go. Peninnah stayed on Hannah, like we say, "as white on rice." She constantly picked at Hannah, making her cry, taking her appetite away.

At first glance Hannah's position seems enviable. She had all the rights and none of the responsibilities—no diapers to change, no beds to sit beside at night, no noses to wipe, nothing else to wipe either, no babies draining you of your milk and demanding feeding. Hannah was top dog. No baby portions to fix at meal times. Her man loved her; everybody knew he loved her. He loved her more than anything or anybody. That's why Peninnah hated her so much.

Now, except for the second-wife bit, which was legal back then, Hannah was sitting on top of the world, until you look closer. When you look closer, what looked like being in heaven was actually existing in a quiet hell.

Hannah had the pain of a bitter woman to contend with, for verse 7 says that nonstop, Peninnah stayed with her. Hannah suffered the pain of living with a bitter woman. And she suffered another pain—the pain of a barren womb. You will remember the story of the widow in 2 Kings 4 who had no child. The story of a woman with no children was a story of deep pathos and despair in biblical days.

Do you remember the story of Sarah and what she did in Genesis 16 because of her barren womb—before the three heavenly visitors stopped by their tent? Do you remember the story of Elizabeth and her husband in Luke I? Back in Bible days, the story of a woman with a barren womb was a story of deep pathos. And Hannah was afflicted with the pain of a bitter woman on the one hand and the pain of a barren womb on the other.

Hannah's world was flawed, flaky. Her garments of respectability were tattered and torn, and her heart was bruised and bleeding from the constant attacks of a jealous woman. The scars and scratches on her psyche are almost visible as you look at this passage, where she cries, refusing to eat anything. Just like the woman in Watt's painting, what looks like being in heaven is actually existence in a quiet hell.

Now I want to share briefly with you about Hannah—the lady and the Lord. While I do so, I want you to be thinking about where you live and your own particular pain predicament. Think about it for a moment.

Dr. Sampson said he wanted to quarrel with the artist for having the gall to name that painting Hope when all he could see in the picture was hell—a quiet desperation. But then Dr. Sampson said he noticed that he had been looking only at the horizontal dimensions and relationships and how this woman was hooked up with that world on which she sat. He had failed to take into account her vertical relationships. He had not looked above her head. And when he looked over her head, he found some small notes of music moving joyfully and playfully toward heaven.

II. The Audacity to Hope

Then, Dr. Sampson began to understand why the artist titled the painting "Hope." In spite of being in a world torn by war, in spite of being on a world destroyed by hate and decimated by distrust, in spite of being on a world where famine and greed are uneasy bed partners, in spite of being on a world where apartheid and apathy feed the fires of racism and hatred, in spite of being on a world where nuclear nightmare draws closer with each second, in spite of being on a ticking time bomb, with her clothes in rags, her body scarred and bruised and bleeding, her harp all but destroyed and with only one string left, she had the audacity to make music and praise God. The vertical dimension balanced out what was going on in the horizontal dimension.

And that is what the audacity to hope will do for you. The apostle Paul said the same thing. "You have troubles? Glory in your trouble. We glory in tribulation." That's the horizontal dimension. We glory in tribulation because, he says, "Tribulation works patience. And patience works experience. And experience works hope. (That's the vertical dimension.) And hope makes us not ashamed." The vertical dimension balances out what is going on in the horizontal dimension. That is the real story here in the first chapter of 1 Samuel. Not the condition of Hannah's body, but the condition of Hannah's soul—her vertical dimension. She had the audacity to keep on hoping and praying when there was no visible sign on the horizontal level that what she was praying for, hoping for, and waiting for would ever be answered in the affirmative.

What Hannah wanted most out of life had been denied to her. Think about that. Yet in spite of that, she kept on hoping. The gloating of Peninnah did not make her bitter. She kept on hoping. When the family made its pilgrimage to the sanctuary at Shiloh, she renewed her petition there, pouring out her heart to God. She may have been barren, but that's a horizontal dimension. She was fertile in her spirit, her vertical dimension. She prayed and she prayed and she prayed and she kept on praying year after year. With no answer, she kept on praying. She prayed so fervently in this passage that Eli thought she had to be drunk. There was no visible sign on the horizontal level to indicate to Hannah that her praying would ever be answered. Yet, she kept on praying.

And Paul said something about that, too. No visible sign? He says, "Hope is what saves us, for we are saved by hope. But hope that is seen is not hope. For what a man sees, why does he have hope for it? But if we hope for that which we see not (no visible sign), then do we with patience wait for it."

That's almost an echo of what the prophet Isaiah said: "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength." The vertical dimension balances out what is going on in the horizontal dimension.

There may not be any visible sign of a change in your individual situation, whatever your private hell is. But that's just the horizontal level. Keep the vertical level intact, like Hannah. You may, like the African slaves, be able to sing, "Over my head I hear music in the air. Over my head I hear music in the air. Over my head I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere."

Keep the vertical dimension intact like Hannah. Have the audacity to hope for that child of yours. Have the audacity to hope for that home of yours. Have the audacity to hope for that church of yours. Whatever it is you've been praying for, keep on praying, and you may find, like my grandmother sings, "There's a bright side somewhere; there is a bright side somewhere. Don't you rest until you find it, for there is a bright side somewhere."

III. Persistence of Hope

The real lesson Hannah gives us from this chapter—the most important word God would have us hear—is how to hope when the love of God is not plainly evident. It's easy to hope when there are evidences all around of how good God is. But to have the audacity to hope when that love is not evident—you don't know where that somewhere is that my grandmother sang about, or if there will ever be that brighter day—that is a true test of a Hannah-type faith. To take the one string you have left and to have the audacity to hope—make music and praise God on and with whatever it is you've got left, even though you can't see what God is going to do—that's the real word God will have us hear from this passage and from Watt's painting.

There's a true-life illustration that demonstrates the principles portrayed so powerfully in this periscope. And I close with it. My mom and my dad used to sing a song that I've not been able to find in any of the published hymnals. It's an old song out of the black religious tradition called "Thank you, Jesus." It's a very simple song. Some of you have heard it. It's simply goes, "Thank you Jesus. I thank you Jesus. I thank you Jesus. I thank you Lord." To me they always sang that song at the strangest times—when the money got low, or when the food was running out. When I was getting in trouble, they would start singing that song. And I never understood it, because as a child it seemed to me they were thanking God that we didn't have any money, or thanking God that we had no food, or thanking God that I was making a fool out of myself as a kid.

Conclusion: Hope is What Saves Us

But I was only looking at the horizontal level. I did not understand nor could I see back then the vertical hookup that my mother and my father had. I did not know then that they were thanking him in advance for all they dared to hope he would do one day to their son, in their son, and through their son. That's why they prayed. That's why they hoped. That's why they kept on praying with no visible sign on the horizon. And I thank God I had praying parents, because now some thirty-five years later, when I look at what God has done in my life, I understand clearly why Hannah had the audacity to hope. Why my parents had the audacity to hope.

And that's why I say to you, hope is what saves us. Keep on hoping; keep on praying. God does hear and answer prayer.